Politics

Shocking News — The Lincoln Project Was a Dumpster Fire On The Inside From Almost the Very Beginning

It was just four days ago that the Lincoln Project published a screenshot of Direct Messages from the Twitter Account of co-founder Jennifer Horn showing that she had been in contact with a reporter named Amanda Becker from 19th News.  I wrote then an “I told you so” story that the Lincoln Project was going to regret not having paid Horn the bonus and consulting fees she requested, as that would probably have been cleaner and cheaper than what might happen if she took what she knew to the media.

A full detailing of the DMs posted, and information about Amanda Becker and 19th News can be found here.

My colleague Jenn Van Laar has been tracking all aspects of the Lincoln Project and covered the release of Horn’s DMs in this story.

Journalist Amanda Becker has published a few stories going back over several months about the internal operations and structure of the Lincoln Project.  She is now benefitting from a deluge of new sources willing to give her information about the internal dynamics and dysfunction of the organization going back nearly to its launch.

The Lincoln Project was created by a group of disgruntled GOP political consultants.  Eight “co-Founders” were identified by name in an early press release:  Steven Schmidt, Rick Davis, John Weaver, Reed Galen, Ron Steslow, Jennifer Horn, George Conway, and Mike Madrid.

Schmidt, Davis, and Weaver all worked on the McCain 2008 Presidential campaign — Schmidt was the Campaign Manager.  Davis has also been involved with campaigns of Rudy Guiliani.  Weaver was the chief “strategist” for John Kasich’s GOP primary campaign in 2016, having previously been closely tied to McCain for many years.

Galen and Steslow are “communications” guys, who run businesses that create and run media campaigns for candidates.  Horn is a twice-failed candidate for the House in New Hampshire and past Chair of the New Hampshire GOP.  Mike Madrid is a political consultant based in California who specializes in issues involving Latino voters.  Conway is the husband of Kellyanne Conway, a former Senior White House Aide for Pres. Trump, and the disgruntled attorney who wanted to be named Solicitor General when Trump won in 2016.

The goal of the Lincoln Project was to work towards the defeat of Pres. Trump in his bid for re-election, as well as to campaign against any GOP Senate candidates who supported Pres. Trump. Quickly becoming a darling of left-wing media — several of the co-founders are in the business of generating media exposure for the political candidates they work for as consultants — the Lincoln Project raised nearly $90 million in 2020 alone.  As a Super PAC, there were no limits on how they could spend those funds so long as they did not coordinate their spending activity with any particular candidate for office or political party.  Their only obligation was to “report” their spending — the recipient and amount — with a very short description of what the expenditure was for.

As has been reported by Jenn Van Laar, in excess of $65 million of the nearly $90 million donated to the Lincoln Project went to three companies controlled by Reed and Steslow, for the production and broadcast of campaign ads on various media platforms — including free social media. But Becker’s new reporting hints that the amount of spending that went through those firms may have been concealed from all but a few of the co-founders and others involved in the Lincoln Project.  Becker’s reporting indicates that some of the co-founders recognized early that the Lincoln Project was a tremendous money-making opportunity because of the level of donations they were receiving.  It seems this information was hidden from others who were not involved as much in the day-to-day operations of the PAC, while those who were closely involved planned how they could enrich themselves both during the campaign and after.

As noted in more detail below, John Weaver and George Conway both resigned from the Lincoln Project in August 2020.

Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid quietly departed in December 2020 without any announcement to the press and signing “non-disclosure agreements” in exchange for significant cash payments.

Jennifer Horn resigned in a messy fashion 10 days ago as reflected in several of the earlier stories linked above — after her demand for money was refused by the remaining Board members.

Steve Schmidt resigned this past Friday with a bizarre public statement he posted on Twitter.  This followed a report on Fox News that he had purchased a home in Utah for $1.4 million and may have been planning to run for the Senate against Mike Lee in 2022.   The home is now on the market for $2.9 million, calling into question how it was that Schmidt was able to buy the home so far below market price.

That leaves only Rick Davis and Reed Galen “unaccounted for” in terms of their present status as members of the Lincoln Project Board.  The FEC reports of spending by the Lincoln Project show no payments going to Davis directly, but such payments can be concealed by simply routing them through one of the other vendors which then has some form of contractual arrangement with Davis by which Davis was paid.

The unraveling of the Lincoln Project started publicly with the reporting on allegations of sexual harassment leveled against John Weaver, involving claims made by numerous young men that Weaver solicited sex from them in exchange for his help in their burgeoning careers in politics.  This reporting caught fire in the normally friendly media after the New York Times reported that it had interviewed 21 young men with such complaints about Weaver, including some who worked or the Lincoln Project — one of whom was only 14 years old when Weaver began his communications with that individual who is now an adult.

But Becker’s reporting reveals there were divisions and dissent inside the Lincoln Project long before the matters involving Weaver became public.

The interviews depict an organization that grew quickly, with little planning at its inception, and then began to spiral out of control as its founders quarreled over the organization’s direction, finances, tactics and even who would own the donor data that the project would eventually amass. Some of the co-founders had an informal management agreement that excluded the others, without their knowledge. Several had private firms to which the Lincoln Project channeled tens of millions of dollars that are then not subject to disclosure, while others were paid relatively modest amounts directly or nothing at all. There were clashes over ego and resentments over podcasts and television contracts.

Recall that a huge portion of expenditures went to two firms controlled by Galen and Steslow — both based in Utah.  Becker’s reporting provides an explanation for that:

A three-person board — Galen, Madrid and Steslow — was created without input from some of the other co-founders…

In late 2020, Conway stepped in to help mediate what was quickly becoming a civil war within the organization. Madrid and Steslow departed in December after signing nondisclosure agreements and receiving separation packages that those familiar with the negotiations describe as lucrative.

On December 21, the Lincoln Project paid Madrid’s firm, Grassroots Lab, two round sum payments of $1.1 million and $300,000. On the same date, it paid Steslow’s firm, TUSK Digital, $900,000. All of the payments were described as for “political strategy consulting” on campaign finance filings.

In addition to the money, Steslow took with him when he left the rights to a podcast he had created while on the Lincoln Project payroll and with Lincoln Project funds.  That podcast is now the property of “Politicology”, a company formed by Steslow when he departed the Lincoln Project.  The podcast is listed among the Top 50 on iTunes which allows it to realize a significant amount in advertising revenue.  This likely accounts for the difference in the cash payouts between what was given to Madrid and what was given to Steslow.

As is also noted in Becker’s piece, there was a dispute going back to the early days about who would own the “data” on donors who contributed to the Lincoln Project.

Another point of internal financial contention was the donor information that Lincoln Project amassed with ads that spread across social media. The specifics over who or which entity would own the data was not negotiated in advance, sources said, and the data’s market value grew as more and more people gave.

A frequent quip from Schmidt overheard by multiple people was that the Lincoln Project was his vehicle to achieve “generational wealth.”

The data on donors to a PAC that raised nearly $100 million in 9 months is the type of information that candidates’ campaigns and political parties would pay an enormous price to have.  The data is proprietary and can be sold over and over again.  It is information on individuals with a particular political point of view, and a willingness to donate money to organizations to advance that point of view. With their long-time presence in the world of political consulting, Schmidt and Davis recognized the value of that data — and until three days ago there were both still part of the Lincoln Project, and the data still belonged to the Lincoln Project.

It seems to be that the two of them — along with Galen — were fine with the departure of the others because the most valuable asset belonging to the Lincoln Project would be in the control of the three who remained.  After Schmidt’s resignation, now that is just Davis and Galen.

But there remain storm clouds on the horizon notwithstanding the departure of the others.  A substantial number of staffers and a small number of Founders temporarily re-located to Utah in the fall for the final two months of the campaign so they could operate under one roof.  The staffers were largely young and liberal, but the founders who joined them there — not identified — were of a different generation of political consulting.  Galen and Steslow had their separate media companies located in Utah, so the working supposition is that the references are to Schmidt and Davis:

… [D]issatisfaction was growing within the organization’s more junior ranks, which were made up of largely young and liberal staffers who said they had different standards than some of the group’s leaders, citing Schmidt and Wilson specifically. There was language used in both the Lincoln Project’s ads and within its workplace about gender and sexuality that made many of them uncomfortable, the dozens of interviews revealed.

Young men were “wizards” while young women were “girls.” Political rivals were “pussies” or “cocksuckers” or “faggots.” By the time the staff convened in Park City, the situation had become so “toxic,” according to more than a dozen accounts, that at least two co-founders, neither of whom remain at the project, had tried unsuccessfully to intervene to improve working conditions.

Staff had also complained that some of the project’s ads, specifically some related to Ivanka Trump, were sexist. There was dissatisfaction among the ranks when Ben Howe, billed as the wunderkind behind some of the Lincoln Project’s earliest ads, was brought back by Wilson. Howe had been fired after The 19th reported that in a series of tweets, he had used offensive slang for female anatomy to insult political rivals.

There were few women in Lincoln Project’s leadership, and those who were there were treated differently than the men, multiple people said. Horn was left out of meetings and not consulted about key decisions or public statements. At points, others within the organization had to persuade her not to quit entirely.

The only candidates for the “two co-founders, neither of whom remain with the project” are Steslow and Madrid.  Weaver and Conway had already departed prior to the move to Utah, and Horn was marginalized in the day to day operations. That means the only three remaining co-founders who could have contributed to creating this environment were the same three — now two — who remained through the departures of the others — Schmidt, Davis, and Galen.

Both Schmidt and Davis are well-known foul-mouthed antagonists when it comes to their commentary about political opponents.  Both are longtime fixtures on programs such as Morning Joe on MSNBC.  Davis had previously worked with Ben Howe, and as noted by Becker, it was Davis who brought Howe back to the project after he had been fired in the summer when earlier Tweets by Howe surfaced in which he called rivals “vagina”, “tw*t” and “c**t”.

Kurt Bardella had served as spokesman for the Lincoln Project for several months.  He resigned his position effective immediately after the Lincoln Project Twitter account published the screenshots of the DMs from Jennifer Horn’s account.

The issues involving Weaver, and what management of the Lincoln Project knew about the allegations and what they did in response, combined with the hostile work environment created in Utah — and maybe prior to Utah — present a “target-rich” environment for plaintiffs’ lawyers who are interested in pursuing claims on behalf of the young liberal staffers who suffered through that working environment.

The lesson here is that Schmidt, Davis, and Weaver were the same people they always appeared to be — political consultants with a long history of being involved in losing campaigns, who ran out of opportunities because no one was interested in hiring them any longer.  Galen and Steslow ran political media shops who were going to lack for work during a Trump re-election campaign given their “Never Trumper” IDs.  Jennifer Horn was a GOP party functionary from a small state which has trended blue for more than a decade, and who had lost twice in running for office herself.  The paths that took Conway and Madrid into their orbits are not as obvious.

This was a collection of rogues, has-beens, never-beens, and wanna-bees who lacked a function in the 2020 election season so they created one for themselves.  But their status as media darlings from the ranks of the Never Trumpers only exposed their many character and personality flaws that are likely to now get them all sued.

Where are you Sarah Lenti?

 

 

 

 




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